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Motherhood

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Motherhood [sculpture] / (photographer unknown)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: A. C. Ladd. Motherhood. Cambridge, Mass. Collection of George Macomber. cast-stone. Classification number: 282/L. Accession: 21648.

1 photographic print : b&w, 6 1/4 x 4 3/8 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

Gertrude Kasebier's photographs about motherhood

National Museum of American History

Confession: This month, we celebrate Mother's Day and I'm jealous of you if you still have your mom. I lost mine to breast cancer when I was 30 and a mother myself for all of six months. And sometimes the anniversary of her death, May 7, falls just before Mother's Day.

Admission: It's Mother's Day and if you've lost your child, my heart breaks for you.

A day that celebrates the importance of mothers, which is rightfully joyful, can also heighten underlying pain and sorrow for many. A pair of images in the Photographic History Collection by Gertrude Käsebier embody the emotional and psychological power that we often attribute to motherhood. Their beauty and drama are an ode to the significant relationship that helps shape us as individuals and as a culture.

Käsebier, a mother of three, became a photographer in her early forties, around 1895, in part to escape an unhappy marriage. Pictorialism, the soft focused and often sentimental style of photography, was an artistic style and a mode in which photography emulated and referenced other forms of art. Drawing on her strong views of life, her interest in the lives of women, and her artistic skills, she would become and remain one of the most influential photographers in the history of photography. Motherhood is a common theme in Käsebier's work, often tinged with sentimentality and religious connotations, but these two photographs in particular are less heavy-handed than some of her other works. Today, over a century later, her photographs still resonate with us.

Blessed Art Thou Among Women

An old photograph. A young girl in a black dress stands in a doorway. A woman next to her turns her head back as she leans over, as if to whisper instructions or a secret. She wears a flowy white gown. The woman and girl appear to be down the hall from the photographer, but the shot is cropped.

In Blessed Art Thou Among Women, a young girl stands in the space between two rooms with a woman wearing a lightweight shift leaning in toward her. Images such as this, of a girl on the threshold of womanhood, represent a theme long represented in literary and artistic traditions. Note the image behind the woman's head that suggests the photographer is hinting at a classical reference. In fact it's an annunciation image, but most of us won't know that. It's enough to for us to think it's a classical image of some sort because then we are thinking that perhaps there is some long-standing human truth for which this image is about. The title of the photograph does come from a Bible verse, Luke 1:42. This work has many layers to be interpreted. For today, I read this as mostly a secular image because Käsebier has placed her version of this trope in a specific time period with the girl's contemporary dress. She stands in the doorway of an inner domestic space ready to take a metaphorical step into a new, bigger world.

Is the woman her mother or some other significant woman in the girl's life, a muse, or perhaps even an angel? What could she be saying or whispering? Or is she looking behind at the girl's childhood? What guidance and advice will the girl take forward? The experience of receiving advice as a youth is universal, and Käsebier's balance of cues and specifics creates space for the viewer to bring her own memories, ideas, and emotions to the photograph to make it meaningful to the viewer. The aesthetics of the images, the lightness, soft-focus, and delicacy, lend a feeling of optimism and hope

The photograph takes on additional power when we know that the girl, Peggy, died not long after the image was made. Hope and anticipation for her future are changed to grief. It is a grief that no one wishes upon a parent, but it remains all too common.

The Heritage of Motherhood

A photograph that is awash in tones of grey. A woman sits in a moor-like environment with a white dress and black shawl or robe. Her face is lifted up and her eyes are closed. Her hands are clasped together as if in prayer

The woman in both photographs is Peggy's mother, a poet and friend of the photographer named Agnes Lee. In The Heritage of Motherhood, she is placed in a vaguely desolate, gloomy space. It is a physical space but also represents emotional and psychological states of grief. Lee's closed eyes, upturned face, vulnerable neck, and tightly clasped hands combine to suggest a sorrowful prayer. There are several versions of this photograph. This version brings Lee closer to the center and foreground of the photograph so that she fills much of the frame. The minimal information in the background and her prominence make it difficult to avoid her. Käsebier compels us to intrude upon the moment in which she is focused on an internal contemplation to acknowledge that while we may wish to move on, the mother's grief looms large.

Blessed Art Thou Among Women has always been one of my favorite photographs. One of the things that makes it so powerful is its subsequent pairing with The Heritage of Motherhood. I am grateful that these two women did not render these precious expressions as saccharine sentimental images. They partnered to give us a moment of their truth depicted in an artistic manner, leaving the viewers space to find their own truth, too. When the first photograph was made, none of its participants knew what was going to happen. But that's how it is, right? We do our best each day to prepare ourselves, and those we guide, for the best future we can imagine for them. But life, made only more precious by its opposite—death—is fragile and can be unpredictable. Käsebier's and Lee's willingness to acknowledge and visualize a most personal and yet shared pain of loss, gives viewers a chance to examine and value the gift, and its loss, that is the real and idealized relationship between mothers and their children. We all have a timeline that is unknown to us, so whether the women who guide you through life are near or far, within your clasp or in your heart, I wish you peace and gratitude on Mother's Day.

Shannon Perich is curator for the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History.

Posted Date: 
Friday, May 12, 2017 - 16:30
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How Motherhood Makes You Smarter

Smithsonian Magazine

Adam Franssen, a biology professor at Longwood University, has a bold theory: mothers are smarter than other women.

He and other researchers, including Craig Kinsley of the University of Richmond, have found that there’s more science than previously thought to being equipped for motherhood. Mothers are better at problem solving, handling stress and at completing certain memory tasks.

Franssen’s aim has been to figure out what is happening in the brains of mothers to warrant these advantages. He designs experiments with mother and non-mother (but still female) rats to see how both groups perform on tasks such as navigating a maze. Then, he studies brain tissue samples from the rats to determine what neurons were activated. Does being a mother give a woman more neurons? Or, are a mother’s neurons bigger or more efficient? Franssen explains.

You have this theory about revving racecar engines and pregnant women’s brains. Can you explain? What do the two have in common?

It is funny comparison. At the revving stage, a racecar’s engine is getting prepped for that race. It seems like there is a lot of evidence to suggest that is actually what’s happening in the mother’s brain during the period of pregnancy. There are changes happening to neurons. They are increasing in size or some neurons have been shown to not only grow but to potentially increase their capacity to produce protein in one part of the brain or perhaps increase their neuronal branches to make communications from one neuron to another neuron that it wasn’t talking with before—all in anticipation of the high workload of caring for a child.

So, what advantages do mothers have over non-mothers, behaviorally?

It is quite the gamut of things that moms can do better than non-moms in the rat world. It is always fair to start by pointing out that rats are uni-parental. That is, the female is the only one that takes care of the pups. The males don’t play a role.

There is a big difference between a non-mother rat and a mother rat, just in terms of caring for their young in the first place. If you put a virgin rat in a cage or a maze with rat pups, it really stresses her out. She will avoid the pups and get as far away as possible. She will exhibit stress grooming behaviors and is generally not interested in these pups, whereas after pregnancy, a mother rat is much more interested. She will collect pups. She will lick them, groom them, feed them, keep them warm and protect them from predators.

A bunch of studies have shown that moms are actually better at all types of learning. If you were to put mother rats in a maze and virgin rats in a maze and train them, the mother rats will complete the maze faster.

Moms are better at memory. So, if you put food in a location and train the rat to find food there, mom rats are much better at finding that food the next time. Retrospective memory is you remember what happened yesterday or what your birthday was like last year. Prospective memory is planning for a future event. You wake up in the morning and you pack a lunch knowing that you are going to be hungry at noon. One of the projects that I am collaborating with Dr. Kinsley on at the moment is seeing if prospective memory is present in rats. Our preliminary unpublished studies suggest that mother rats are better at planning for the future versus non-mothers.

Mothers are less stressed out when you put them in a stress-inducing situation. They don’t show as much fear. They are more efficient at foraging. They will find food, collect it quickly and get back. They are more aggressive at defending their offspring; if there is an intruder or any sort of threatening presence, moms will fight it more than non-mothers. A recent study showed that moms are better at recognizing emotions than others. Mothers are able to recognize hostility, disgust, fear or the types of emotions that would trigger some sort of danger to their offspring.

 Is it fair to say that the more kids a woman has, the smarter she becomes?

I am not going to say that it is not true, but we haven’t shown conclusively. Studies with mothers that have had multiple birthing events suggest in some cases that they are better at some of these things. Essentially, the moms become more efficient at being moms the second time around. But, I don’t have conclusive, concrete, “Yes, have 15 children, you’ll be successful.”

“The bodily changes of childbearing are obvious, but as we are discovering, the changes in the brain are no less dramatic,” you and your research partner, Craig Kinsley, wrote in Scientific American in 2010. How so?

You can actually look and find neurons that are bigger in mothers than in non-mothers. You can do a stain just to look for the number of branches that come off of a neuron to make connections with new neurons. There are large differences in the number of neurons that are firing. We can see that there are more receptors for certain hormones that are present. Then, we can also see things indicating that different areas of brains are being affected. A mother brain might be using more brain regions to figure out a memory task.

It is sort of like the physical changes in pregnancy. In the cases of rats and people too, you can see, oh, look, you are six months or eight months or nine months pregnant. That’s a very obvious physical change. I think a lot of those similar things are happening in the brain, you just don’t see anything taking place there.

You can sort of see these things happen in human females. I know that when my wife was pregnant one of the things that she was very sensitive to was fried chicken. It was one of those things where she would put a fist to her mouth and run in the opposite direction. It just made her sick to her stomach. I think what is happening there is a rewiring of the brain. Smells that were appetizing beforehand are now repulsive. That may not be a long-term thing. Now, my wife likes chicken again.

Again, I hope my wife doesn’t mind too much here. She was very emotional and would cry at not only Hallmark commercials but also other seemingly innocent commercials, which would have me very confused as to what was going on emotionally. But again, I think that’s the brain rewiring. It is rewiring from, okay, I have a standard reaction to other individuals, or a standard amount of empathy, and that empathy is now increasing so that I can better protect my offspring when it gets here.

What are your major unanswered questions?

Previous research has shown some of the stuff I’ve talked about—that there are neurons getting bigger and more efficient. But, in some of the memory scenarios or aggression or foraging, we are not necessarily sure. Is it more neurons? Is it longer bursts of period for neurons that are activated to help make moms more efficient or better at these tasks?

Are the maternal effects coming from just the process of being pregnant or is the exposure to the pups after mothers are pregnant, or is it a combination of both? There is a lot of evidence that just being exposed to pups, in absence of pregnancy can actually be helpful.

Then, being a dad, I want to know what dads can do to be smarter. This is the question I get a lot when I talk about this work. Well, I am not ever going to be a mother, what can I do? It can be dads or any sort of non-mothers. There is evidence that hormone therapy works, that estrogen can help the brain a little bit. Or, what is the role maybe of other environmental enrichment? Is there a way to boost your brain without becoming a mother?

What are you currently working on?

This summer, I am working with an undergraduate here at Longwood University looking at mothers and their relationships with their own pups versus other pups—alien or adopted pups. Previous research has shown that if you put a mother rat in a cage with a pile of rat pups, that mother will be able to go in and identify her pups. She’ll pick them up, gather them and care for them, do the whole maternal process with those pups, but then she will also take care of the other pups. She will care for them, make a nest and keep them warm and feed them.

Behavior studies have been done on that, but not any of the underlying neurological processes. This summer, we’ll set up these scenarios: moms with just their pups, moms with just alien pups and then moms with this mixed groups of pups. We will try to find out what if any differences there are in the actual behavior. How quickly are pups retrieved and cared for? Are there differences in the amount of care that their own versus alien pups get? Then we’ll look at the brain regions underneath and say, are there different reactions neurologically in a response to one’s own pups versus another? I notice that as a parent, I am much more interested in looking out for other kids than I was when I wasn’t a father. So, what is going on in the brain there?

One of the things that I find very exciting—we published it last year—was a study showing that mothers actually recover more quickly from a traumatic brain injury. Can we compare non-mom rats with mothers and see if there is a way that we can start getting some of these neural benefits to individuals who for one reason or another aren’t going to have children? Is there a mechanism there, maybe just in terms of enrichment in the environment that could lead to neuro-protective benefits? I think there are a lot of implications for it—from individuals who suffer in car accidents to the NFL. 

Has your research and what you’ve learned affected your relationship with your own mother? 

It has. I have been fortunate; I am close with my mom. My research on this topic coincided quite closely to the birth of my first child. Combining that type of research with my own experience of taking care of my daughter, I have a lot of respect for my mom and what she did taking care of me growing up. I probably still don’t call home enough.

Motherhood [sculpture] / (photographed by Andre Snow)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: A. C. Ladd. Motherhood. Cambridge, Mass. Collection of George Macomber. cast-stone. Photographer: Andre Snow. Classification number: 282/L. Accession: 154536.

1 photographic print : b&w, 6 1/4 x 4 1/2 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

American Motherhood [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title transcribed from negative.

Hawthorne, Joseph (son of artist), 1983.

"Hawthorne Retrospective, June 16 through September 17, 1961," Provincetown, MA: Chrysler Art Museum, 1961, no. 31.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.

Motherhood [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Inscription on negative: Motherhood with Father.

"Romantic American Visionary: Max Bohm, 1868-1923," Boston: A. J. Walker/ Townhouse Press, 1994, fig. 24.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Sanctity of Motherhood [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Buffalo Bill Center of the West, 2015.

Cummins, D. Duane, "William Robinson Leigh: Western Artist," Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press and Thomas Gilcrease Institue of American History and Art,1980.

DuBois, June, "W.R. Leigh: The Definitive Illustrated Biography," Kansas City, MO: Lowell Press, 1977.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

A Fertile Polar Bear's Hard Journey From Mating to Motherhood

Smithsonian Channel
After mating takes place, a female polar bear will prepare for her impending pregnancy by eating voraciously. In all, she will pack on more than 400 pounds, to sustain her during winter. From: POLAR BEAR TOWN: Parole Day http://bit.ly/2glmSuR

Model for Maud Ashley Memorial: Motherhood (detail) [sculpture] / (photographer unknown)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On photo mount label: E. Fuchs. Ashley Memorial: detail, group of Motherhood. Romsey, Abbey Church. Gift of: Edward D. Adams. Photographer? Classification number: 282/F951/861. Accession: 63289.

1 photographic print : b&w, 7 7/8 x 6 in. (trimmed), mounted on 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in. board.

Shirin Neshat on motherhood and the role of an artist

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Excerpt from "Portraying History: Gender and Politics in Iran" Sept. 8, 2015 This program brought together artist Shirin Neshat and Nazila Fathi, former Tehran-based New York Times correspondent and author of "The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran," to discuss the role of women in Iranian society. Moderator Tyler Green is the host of the Modern Art Notes Podcast. Presented in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

A Fertile Polar Bear's Hard Journey From Mating to Motherhood

Smithsonian Magazine
After mating takes place, a female polar bear will prepare for her impending pregnancy by eating voraciously. In all, she will pack on more than 400 pounds

Motherhood and Cherub [sculpture] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title supplied by cataloger.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Medallic Art.

Motherhood Triumphant [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Title transcribed from negative.

New York Times, November 10, 2010, Section A, pg. 26.

Christie's New York, Sale9254 (November 30, 1999), lot 101.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.

Parent–offspring conflicts, "optimal bad motherhood" and the "mother knows best" principles in insect herbivores colonizing novel host plants

Smithsonian Libraries
Specialization of insect herbivores to one or a few host plants stimulated the development of two hypotheses on how natural selection should shape oviposition preferences: The "mother knows best" principle suggests that females prefer to oviposit on hosts that increase offspring survival. The "optimal bad motherhood" principle predicts that females prefer to oviposit on hosts that increase their own longevity. In insects colonizing novel host plants, current theory predicts that initial preferences of insect herbivores should be maladaptive, leading to ecological traps. Ecological trap theory does not take into account the fact that insect lineages frequently switch hosts at both ecological and evolutionary time scales. Therefore, the behavior of insect herbivores facing novel hosts is also shaped by natural selection. Using a study system in which four Cephaloleia beetles are currently expanding their diets from native to exotic plants in the order Zingiberales, we determined if initial oviposition preferences are conservative, maladaptive, or follow the patterns predicted by the "mother knows best" or the "optimal bad motherhood" principles. Interactions with novel hosts generated parent–offspring conflicts. Larval survival was higher on native hosts. However, adult generally lived longer on novel hosts. In Cephaloleia beetles, oviposition preferences are usually associated with hosts that increase larval survival, female fecundity, and population growth. In most cases, Cephaloleia oviposition preferences follow the expectations of the "mothers knows best" principle.

Reproduction of Woodland house by Rosina Emmet Sherwood

Archives of American Art
1 transparency : col. ; 13 x 10 cm. Transparency made for the Berkshire Museum exhibit 1982.
Watercolor painting shows a woman leading a toddler down the steps in front of a house.
Inscription (handwritten) in lower right corner: R.E.S. to A.M.S., Woodland house, 1889.

Elsie Driggs and her daughter, Merriman

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 9 x 7 cm.

Identification on verso (typed): Elsie Driggs (Mrs. Lee Gatch) with their daughter, Merriman

Jessie Olssen (Tanner) and Jesse Ossawa Tanner

Archives of American Art
1 photographic print : b&w ; 18 x 13 cm. Date range based on approximate age of Jesse Tanner (born 1903) in photograph.
Photograph shows Jessie Olssen Tanner, seated, with her son Jesse Tanner standing by her knee.

Digital print of Mae Reeves on Mother's Day

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A color digital print of Mae Reeves sitting in a white draped chair. She is wearing a black dress and hat, with black feathers. She wears a large pearl bracelet around her right writst. Behind her there is a large bouquet of flowers. An inscription on the back notes that the photograph was taken on Mother's Day in Philadelphia.

Photograph of Mae Reeves and Donna Limerick as an infant

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of Mae Reeves holding Donna Limerick as a baby. Mae wears a white blouse and earrings. Donna wears a knitted white jacket. Mae is sitting and photographed from the waist up with Donna standing on her left leg.

Lunchtime at Coney

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of a mother breast feeding her child on the beach at Coney Island.

Studio portrait of mother and child

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of a woman and a female child. The woman, left, is wearing a light button down dress, gloves, earrings, a necklace and heels. She has a purse in her hands. The child, right, is wearing a light short dress, socks and dark shoes. The child is standing on the bench with her arms around the woman's neck.

Studio portrait of mother and infant

National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of a woman holding a baby. The woman is wearing a dark shift dress, patent boots and earrings with rings on both hands. The baby is wearing a light outfit and shoes. The woman is seated on a bench with the baby resting in her lap.
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